The strategies of the Circular Economy
Hi everyone, and welcome to the second blog post of a Circular Victory! Last week we looked at a bit of history around the Linear Economy, our current economic model. We looked at the inherent issue with the Linear Economy, specifically the fact that resources are finite. This led us to the reason why we need the Circular Economy. I explained that the Circular Economy will help us to form a truly sustainable model for the entire world.
Today, we will add some theory and concepts to back up these claims. This is also a great post for those people wondering how they can start applying the Circular principles to their daily lives! We will start by taking a deeper look at the different types of cycles we find throughout the world. We will then continue to discuss the Circular strategies that both business and us, the people, can apply to become more Circular!
Biological and technical cycles
In the last blog post, we talked about the cycles we can observe in nature, like the life, growth and death of leaves. In nature, we only find biological cycles. We talk about biological cycles where we see them feed back into the beginning of the cycle through processes like composting. In these biological processes, “waste” breaks down into nutrients for living systems. Food waste is often a part of the biological cycles, but that’s not the only type of waste that feeds into the biological cycle. Pure cotton clothes, for example, can also compost and feed back into the cycles that way.
When we talk about integrating these Circular processes into manufacturing, however, it is clear that not all of the materials fit into the biological cycles. Some materials simply won’t break down and compost. For these other, processed materials we will look at technical cycles. In the technical cycle, we will need to apply Circular strategies in order to close the loop and really employ the cradle-to-cradle concept. These strategies can be broken down into the five R’s of the Circular Economy:
The five R’s of the Circular Economy
Before we dive into the explanation of the five R’s, it is important to realise that these are not only corporate, manufacturing strategies. We can all start applying these strategies in our daily lives and start bringing our world closer to a Circular and sustainable one. So while you’re reading these strategies, I want to challenge you to think about ways you can apply them in your everyday life!
Now, let’s dive into it!
This is the first strategy to employ in order to evolve to a Circular Economy. In order to make sure we do not use more than the finite amount of resources that Mother Earth has to offer, we should reduce consumption and waste. For example, we can and should move away from single use items. Replacing plastic straws was a big deal recently and that’s a first step. Getting a reusable water bottle could be another one. However, it is not only consumers that should aim to reduce the amount of waste they generate.
Companies generate significantly more waste and often a lot more than necessary. By looking at their processes and redeveloping them, they could reduce a significant amount of waste that they are producing. An example of this is Levi’s and the “stonewash” look of their jeans. Originally, Levi’s would literally wash their jeans with stones in order to achieve that faded, used look. This process required significant amounts of water. Levi’s has now developed a laser solution that can give jeans the exact same “stonewash” look, without needing to use any of the water (or stones). With this new technique, Levi’s is saving up to 96% of the water that is normally needed to do denim finishing! In 2019, this had resulted in more than 3 billion liters of waters saved (Levi Strauss & Co., 2019).
This strategy is quite straightforward, but it really helps us to reduce consumption. Instead of getting rid of a product when we are done using it or when we upgrade to the next version, we should aim to give it a second life. Think, for example, about the old phones you probably have in a drawer somewhere in your house. Think about the clothes in your closet that you never wear anymore. All of these products can still be reused and given a second life! You can donate these clothes, bring them to a secondhand shop or even swap them with someone else. For electronics, there are also programmes where you can return them to the store in exchange for store credit.
This is also something to look into when you want to buy things. You will often find cheaper products in a secondhand market, that are still great quality and function perfectly!
If a product is not in a good enough state anymore to be simply reused, we still shouldn’t throw it away yet. The product is not yet ready to enter the beginning of the cycle again. It can still be refurbished! Refurbishment can happen in a lot of different ways, but it is often aesthetic in nature. Think, for example, of an old desk. The colour has faded and some of the drawers don’t work like they used to. Should we throw the desk out? No, we could easily give the desk a new layer of paint, easily fix the drawers and we have a desk that is as good as new. We can apply this approach to many other things around the house.
Companies can also apply this approach, and should increasingly do so in a Circular Economy. By encouraging people to return their products before they are completely broken, companies can really take advantage of refurbishment. By making some minor tweaks and upgrade to the product, they have something that is as good as new and can be brought to the market again. This approach needs a lot less raw materials and can therefore be a lot more cost efficient for companies.
Repairing products is a strategy that was very common not so long ago, but has lost a lot of popularity. The Circular Economy aims to bring that practice back. Just because a product stops working, doesn’t mean the complete product is broken. Often it is one or a few components that no longer work. By repairing those few components, a product can be restored to full functionality. This can significantly increase the lifetime of a product and in turn decrease consumption and waste.
One of the reasons that repairing is so important is that when we throw away products, we are not only throwing away the materials. We are also wasting the time, effort and labour that have gone into the product. In summary, repairing products can keep them in the cycle longer and keep the value of the cycle higher.
Recycling should always be the very last option of the cycle. In today’s world, it often seems like recycling is the first and most important step. However, many products aren’t designed to be recycled and therefore aren’t recycled very effectively or efficiently.
In a truly Circular Economy, recycling connects the end of one products lifetime with the beginning of a new products life. It does so by breaking down the product into raw materials. We then need to clean, check and process the raw material so that they will be ready to be used again in a new product. Because this is the step that makes the circle round, it is a very important step. It is quite hard to recycle random products though, because it can be difficult to extract the separate raw materials once they have been put together in one product. That’s why it is important that Circular products be designed with the whole supply chain in mind.
Just like last week, when I challenged you to see the biological cycles in nature around you, I have a challenge for you again this week. I explained the five R’s of the Circular Economy to you: Reduce, Reuse, Refurbish, Repair and Recycle. In the next week, I want you to look at your personal, everyday life and I want you to find opportunities to apply these Circular strategies.
In order to encourage you, I want to give you a recent example of my own life. My whole life, I have only been buying clothes new. Buying secondhand clothes never even really occurred to me as an option. However, while writing my thesis and discovering the Circular Economy, I realised I could do things differently. So this summer, when I wanted to buy a nice, short-sleeved shirt, I decided to look online. I was surprised to find out that there are SO MANY options out there to buy secondhand clothes. I ended up buying a nice shirt, with a flowery pattern that I have been wearing and loving!
As always, the aim of this podcast is also to start conversations among my audience. I would love to hear from you if you have applied any of these strategies to your life or if you have a good idea of how to use them. Share your story with me through firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on my LinkedIn, Victor Lanckriet.
Thank you for reading and I’ll be back next week!
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020. The Technical And Biological Cycles. [image] Available at: <https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept/infographic> [Accessed 20 November 2020].
Levi Strauss & Co. 2019. How Levi’S Is Saving Water. [online] Available at: <https://www.levistrauss.com/2019/03/25/world-water-day-2019-saving-h2o/> [Accessed 19 November 2020].